Why Businesses Should Learn Chinese

2010 February 18

The buzz language in New York City these days is Chinese. Whenever you speak with someone about new business opportunities China will usually enter into the conversation. But is Learning Chinese really worth it? In a bilingual world where Chinese people are moving to New York City, you would think just a trusted in house translator would suffice for companies doing business in China. This article will argue that at least learning the basics of Chinese can jump start your business and give you the edge when winning contracts in the competitive Chinese market.

Quick Impressions Are Everything So you’re going to sit down with a Chinese business and attempt to negotiate a contract with them. Of course the thing they care about most is their bottom line, and how much it will cost to do business with you. But let’s say your prices are relatively similiar to your competitors. Your experiences (bringing other Chinese companies public) are also quite similiar, what do you think will make the best impression on them? What will stick in their mind the most?

You don’t need to have fluency in Chinese to impress people in the business setting. But if a partner comes in and greets in Chinese, says his name and company, and throws in catch phrases every now and then, chances are the Chinese will remember that partner and that company. Knowing some of the Chinese language shows you care about your clients, understand their culture, and ultimately can be trusted.

Another Person’s Words Are NOT Your Own So you’ve sat down with a potential business partner in China. The company seems friendly, you as well are quite friendly, and although the chemistry’s there the words aren’t. You’ll explain something, they’ll come back and say something else. It’s a very frustrating experience, and ultimately although you thought you had your first big client in China, turns out you just couldn’t come to agreement.

It’s highly likely that your translator isn’t translating correctly, or doesn’t really know you and your sense of humor. The point isn’t to bash translators, there are some great ones out there, but the point is communicating directly is much more efficient. Even saying “thank you” “nice to meet you” or “that’s too expensive” will register a lot quicker from your mouth than someone else’s. Also memorizing funny phrases and using them to break the ice, in Chinese, will show your ability to be human and ultimately a great potential business partner.

And if that doesn’t convince you, the worst case scenario with Chinese translators (especially hiring them in smaller, less known cities) is that they don’t speak English, period. They might know a few catch phrases, and then they just fill in the blanks with everything else they don’t know. Imagine what they’re filling in the blanks with!

ENJOY Your Business Trips to China Thirdly (and might be the most important) is actually get something out of your trips to China, not just for business but also for personal satisfaction and experience. Traveling to a country and not speaking the native language is like having a wall around you. Understanding some basic Chinese can enable to you break down that wall and, speak to the locals. The street vendor on the corner, the shop keeper, the waiter in the restaurant, or the business man sitting next to you in a coffee shop, all might have life changing things to say or just quirky insights into China that you’ve never gotten out of your daily business meetings.

Also, it makes life easier! You might hire a translator to negotiate your multi-million dollar deal for you, but are you going to have someone to translate for you in your everyday life in China? Let’s use the cab for an example, wouldn’t it be nice to actually be able to communicate “I have this much, from here to here” or “please go to this destination” or “how’s the weather been in China?”

In short, both linguistically and culturally learning Chinese makes sense for your bottom line. It will help impress your clientele, give you an edge over other firms that “can’t be bothered” to learn the native language, and most importantly give you the most out of your experiences in working with the Chinese people. The next article will get more in depth with the regulatory and other business implications for not learning Chinese…

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